Buzz builds for fall box office

'Bee,' 'Gangster' expected to boost numbers

The domestic box office is expected to surge back to life this weekend with the arrival of Universal’s mobster-cop drama “American Gangster” and DreamWorks Animation’s “Bee Movie.”

There’s plenty of buzz surrounding both “Bee Movie,” voiced, co-written and produced by Jerry Seinfeld, and director Ridley Scott’s “Gangster,” toplining Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.

“Bee,” distributed by Paramount and unspooling in 3,928 theaters, marks Seinfeld’s first major outing since his hit TV series went off the air in 1998. Toon, also featuring the voices of Renee Zellweger, Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock, isn’t as kid-friendly as most other broad animated fare, which will likely cut into its haul.

Bowing in 3,054 locations, “Gangster” could be the shot in the arm the box office needs, with U aiming for one of the best fall openings for an R-rated drama. It’s seen as a strong awards contender.

The weekend’s only other wide debut is New Line’s John Cusack starrer “Martian Child,” which opens in 2,020. Menno Meyjes-directed drama, about a man who adopts a boy who thinks he’s from Mars, also stars Bobby Coleman and Amanda Peet.

The specialty side is relatively quiet in terms of new openers.

Contest for No. 1 is likely to be close between “Bee” and “Gangster,” paralleling the race last November between Warner Bros. penguin toon “Happy Feet” and James Bond installment “Casino Royale.” Opening to $41.5 million over the Nov. 17-19 frame, “Happy Feet” narrowly beat “Casino Royale,” which debuted at $40.8 million.

Tracking is strong for both films, with some even giving an edge to “American Gangster” even though the PG-rated “Bee Movie” is a family title.

Both Universal and Paramount, which distributes all DreamWorks Animation titles, are trying to manage expectations.

The fall corridor has been a lucrative one for toons, although Par is stressing that the “Bee Movie” perf is expected to be more in line with that of “Happy Feet” than with that of Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” which debuted at $70.5 million in November 2004; Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.,” which opened to $62.5 million in November 2001; or DreamWorks Animation’s “Shark Tale,” which opened to $47.6 million in October 2004. “Chicken Little” debuted at $40 million in November 2005.

Those involved with “Bee Movie” say its humor is very Jerry Seinfeld, meaning it skews older. Story follows a bunch of bees who file a class-action lawsuit against the human race for stealing their honey. Idea was first hatched during a dinner Seinfeld had with Steven Spielberg, who in turn called Jeffrey Katzenberg.

One advantage for “Bee Movie”: Its running time is 90 minutes; “American Gangster” runs 157 minutes.

“American Gangster” tells the real-life story of Frank Lucas, a 1970s organized crime boss and drug kingpin in Harlem, and the cop who tried to bring him down. Steven Zaillian adapted the screenplay from a New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson.

Eminem starrer “8 Mile” holds the record for best fall opening for an R-rated film with $51.2 million in its November 2002 bow. “Interview With the Vampire” comes in next with $36.4 million.On the specialty side, several docus bow this weekend, including Warner Independent Pictures’ “Darfur Now,” narrated by Don Cheadle and directed by Ted Braun. Film, about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, bows in three theaters in L.A. and Gotham.

IFC debuts docu “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten,” about the charismatic frontman for the Clash, in two theaters in New York and L.A. Brit filmmaker Julien Temple directed.

Intl. Film opens Molly Bingham and Steve Connors’ docu “Meeting Resistance,” about insurgents in Iraq, in one theater in Los Angeles. Rocky Mountain Pictures debuts Rob Stewart’s docu “Sharkwater” in theaters in key markets.

On the feature side, Rialto re-releases 1981 French drama-actioner “Diva” in one theater in Gotham. Regent opens comedy “Fat Girls” in two theaters in Gotham and L.A.

Platforming are “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” which goes from four to 91 runs, and Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which goes from two locations to 43.

On the foreign front, the frame’s set for a wide array of targeted expansions plus limited day-and-date international launches of the weekend’s openers — “Bee Movie” in Russia and the Ukraine and “American Gangster” in Bulgaria and the Baltics.

Scare fare will expand. “Saw IV,” which finished second last weekend with $12.3 million, expands into Denmark, Greece and Taiwan; “Resident Evil: Extinction” goes into Japan and Spain with a foreign cume nearing $60 million.

Universal’s launching “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” into the U.K., probably its most promising international market, along with Norway and Sweden. Domestic perf for the Cate Blanchett period drama has underwhelmed with $14 million in three weeks.

U, which remains the season’s most active studio, is expanding “The Kingdom” into France, Belgium and Denmark amid a modest foreign run that’s topped $20 million, led by $5.6 million in the U.K.

Universal’s also taking “Knocked Up” into Spain, one of the last major markets for the laffer, which has cumed a respectable $65 million outside the U.S. Sony’s moving “Superbad” into France and Belgium; pic has a $36 million international total in the middle of its foreign run.

Other openings include “The Heartbreak Kid” in Germany and Mexico; “The Game Plan” into Australia, New Zealand and Singapore; “Daddy Day Care” in Italy; and local sequel “Always 2” in Japan.

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